Stop the Show!: A History of Insane Incidents and
Absurd Accidents in the Theater
Anecdotes from Stop the Show! (Da Capo) by Brad
1. AT A LOSS FOR WORDS
an ensemble to improvise lines can be treacherous, especially if those
background actors are a bit too creative.
Michael Bethnall was directing Julius Caesar at the Old Vic and
castigated the ensemble for a lack of authenticity in their background
reactions. “Just behave as you would normally in a crowded street.”
That night, a member of a crowd scene walked offstage in his toga,
Elaine May and Mike Nichols are heralded as the one of the
greatest improv and comedy teams in history. But one night, even these two
gifted performers unconsciously went to a very disturbing place onstage, one
they would rather forget.
When they performed at the Compass Players in Chicago, the predecessor to
Second City, Nichols and May used to do a bit called “Pirandello.” Inspired by
that playwright’s Six Characters In Search of an Author, the sketch
worked like this: First, Nichols and May would be children, imitating their
parents. Then, they would become the parents, fighting in earnest. Then, they
would become Nichols and May, fighting with each other about performing
Pirandello. Then, as the audience grew uncomfortable, May would start to leave
the stage, angry. Nichols would grab at her blouse.
“What do you think you’re doing?” May would demand, infuriated.
“Pirandello,” Nichols would blithely reply and they would both take a bow,
showing the astonished audience it was all part of the sketch.
The daring of this concept viscerally affected its audiences but none more
so than the night Nichols and May got to the point in Pirandello when they were
pretending to fight with each other. Both got lost in the intensity of the
moment and actually began to hurt each other. Nichols hit May while May clawed
at his chest.
Offstage, both broke down in tears.
Jimmy Durante performed in a Rodgers and Hart musical
called Jumbo at New York’s Hippodrome Theatre in 1935. The Hippodrome at
that time was billed as the largest theatre in the world, seating about 5300
people. It starred Durante and an even bigger star, Tuffy, the elephant, playing
Jumbo, an enormous elephant made popular by circus impresario P.T. Barnum.
One day, in front of thousands, Durante dropped his lines as he was taken
aback by Tuffy dropping something else in great quantity on the stage.
Regaining his composure, Durante admonished the elephant, “Hey, Tuffy, no
WHO ARE YOU WEARING? (COSTUMING AND MAKEUP)
Leslie Crowther was a principal comedian in the Black and White Minstrel Show
that ran from 1962 to 1965 at London’s Victoria Palace. A live orchestra was
used, as well as taped singing, so the performers had ease of movement and did
not have to use microphones.
But Crowther and
fellow performer George Chisholm found their movements rather hurried one night,
when there was a power
failure in the theatre, while they were in their dressing
rooms before the show.
They heard the
taped singing of Tony Mercer change a key and then slow down, dropping lower and
lower, even though the
orchestra played at their usual tempo. Then, all the
lights went out.
Chisholm ran in total darkness from their dressing rooms, grabbing flashlights
on the run. Shining them in each
other’s faces, they entertained the crowd for
forty-five minutes, as Chisholm, impromptu, played the trombone and Crowther
The only problem
was the resolution of the problem. Suddenly, the power returned and lights came
up, onstage and in the theatre.
Chisholm were wearing nothing but jock straps.
has the power to make an audience laugh or cry. But Steven Buntrock was in a
production of Rodgers and
Hammerstein’s South Pacific that
unintentionally made people scream in terror.
In rehearsals for the tour,
Buntrock, as Lt. Cable, was supposed to be shot and for that purpose, there was
a blood packet under
his tee shirt that he would smack and break open at the
The director, however, did not think it looked very impressive and
instructed Buntrock to turn toward the audience after the
supposed shot, so they
could see the spread of “blood” through his tee shirt.
the fourth show of the tour, ten minutes before the curtain, the producer got an
even better idea. He told Buntrock, “We
can’t see enough blood through your tee
shirt. Take the blood packet out and smack it on your face during the death
Buntrock hid the packet in his hand and when the shot went off, he was full back
to the audience. He smashed the fist-sized packet against his head. The audience
screamed in horror. It looked like Buntrock had half of his head blown off.
effect was so startling, even for the performers, that the gun was accidentally
dropped into the audience as the lights went out. Buntrock was now supposed to
exit through an aisle in the house but the mock blood, made of colored shampoo,
stung his eyes and blinded him.
stumbled into the audience in the dark, getting fake blood on people. The gun
was required for the performance and so the actor playing Emile de Beque went
into the audience, in the dark, to try and retrieve it.
There, covered in stage blood, he reached down for what he thought was the gun.
When the lights came up, he was holding a white leather purse, now slathered in
fake blood, and the lady who it belonged to was trying to grab it back.
3. A DRASTIC CHANGE OF
SCENERY (SCENERY, PROPERTIES, SOUND, LIGHTING)
Lilly Langtry was performing the lead in Camilla in London. While onstage
with her lover, she noticed the white camellia, which she gave him each night in
the scene, was missing. She subtly acted her way toward the wings and harshly
whispered to a stagehand, “My camellia!”
A stagehand responded instantly and without looking at what she had been
given, Langtry approached her paramour, uttering the following, impassioned
“Take this flower, Armand. It is rare, pale, senseless, cold but sensitive
as purity itself. Cherish it and its beauty will excel the loveliest flower that
grows, but wound it with a single touch and you shall never recall its bloom or
wipe away the stain.”
With that, she handed him a half-eaten stalk of celery that the stagehand
had been chewing.
Actors are a remarkable breed. They continue performing
when they are injured, when they feel ill and even, in the case of Alfred Uhry’s
The Last Days of Ballyhoo, when they cannot be seen.
Meredith Hagedorn was ushering at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills during
the Uhry play when the power went out and the theatre was plunged into darkness.
The actors stopped speaking and froze onstage. The ushers ran down into the
house and carefully began guiding patrons toward the exits with the illumination
But then, one of the actors, previously frozen onstage, demanded that
everyone stop. Some ushers shone their flashlights on the actor, who called out,
“Well, wouldn’t you all like to see the end of the show? We’ve got about fifteen
minutes and this is the best part!”
The audience applauded and those standing returned to their seats. The play
was finished, thanks to all the ushers shining flashlights on the stage. Each
usher held three flashlights: One in each hand and one in their mouths.
4. NOISES OFF (OFF STAGE AND OUTSIDE THE
The true, unsung hero of live
stage is the stage manager, who often solves the impossible without the audience
even knowing there is a problem.
Jerry Stiller was in Terrence McNally’s comedy The Ritz at the
Longacre in 1975. He played amusing tough guy Carmine Vespucci. Among the props
he had in the dressing room, prior to coming onstage one night, were a mink coat
and a mock .38 caliber pistol.
Stiller went, one performance, into the dressing room to grab the coat and
gun, only to find them gone. Someone had clearly walked by the theatre, reached
through the iron bars over the window and snagged both items.
Completely panic stricken, Stiller found stage manager Larry Ford and told
him of the crisis. “What do I do? I can’t go on without my gun!”
Ford decisively handed Stiller his stage manager script and promised to be
Stiller paced back and forth, agonizing, for five minutes.
Good to his word, Ford returned with another mink coat and another gun,
also very realistic in appearance.
Stiller was flooded with relief and took both items, readying himself for
his entrance. He asked Ford where he got them so fast.
“I borrowed the coat from a lady in the audience,” said the intrepid stage
manager. “The gun I got from a cop on 48th Street. Now, go ahead. Do
For many people of an
artistic persuasion, the hardest audience to please is neither critic nor fellow
It’s your parents.
Anthony Shaffer was at the opening of fellow playwright Harold Pinter’s
The Homecoming, when he bumped into Pinter’s father in the theatre.
Rather than expressing pride in his son’s work, the elder Pinter told
Shaffer to inform Harold that the public did not really like his work.
Furthermore, Pinter’s father wanted Shaffer to see if Pinter couldn’t “…brighten
it up a bit.”
5. HARD SHOES TO FILL (ACTORS’ MOVEMENTS
night of entertainment in Sir Oswald Stoll’s newly refurbished Coliseum in 1904
London was a smash, not a smash hit, just something that went smash.
The Derby was a performance featuring pickpockets, fine ladies,
crowds, mounted police and six jockeys on live horses, all moved by a revolve.
Due to a failure in the braking mechanism, the revolve, which should have turned
no faster than fifteen miles per hour, hit a speed that would do a quarterhorse
Actors, horses, bits of the set and properties went flying out into the
audience. Lead jockey and the unfortunately named Fred Dent flew into the side
of a box and expired before reaching Charing Cross Hospital.
Tovatt was playing in Eugen O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey into Night at
the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisoc with his good friend David
Grimm. Based on what befell Tovatt, it is amazing that they stayed friends.
The play required a fight between their characters. At one
performance, a blow from Grimm shattered Tovatt’s left eardrum.
The play was blocked again, so that lines delivered toward Tovatt’s
character would reach his right ear, not his left. This worked for the rest of
the run. A year later, the play was revived and at the end of the tour, Grimm,
during their fight sequence, put a little bit too much into it and shattered
Tovatt’s other eardrum.
6. WHO ASKED YOU?
Marshall, after working as director, producer and actor in television and film,
opened the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, a 130-seat space that often puts on
children’s theatre during the weekends, introducing kids to live stage often for
the first time.
One afternoon, Sleeping Beauty was being presented and the actor
playing Prince Charming entered, wearing very close-fitting tights.
A young boy in the front row, who could not have been much more than four
years old, clearly was having his first live theatre experience. He stood up and
clear as a bell, announced to his mother and the rest of the Falcon Theatre,
“Mommy, I can see Prince Charming’s penis!”
When is a
rude theatergoer who interferes with a production not a rude theatergoer? When
the producer of a failing show has paid that person to cause a ruckus.
Maverick producer David Merrick, noted for his publicity stunts, came up
with his most outrageous machination during the New York run of John Osborne’s
Look Back In Anger. While the play changed the history of British
theatre, the American version of philandering, furious Jimmy Porter did not do
well and ticket sales had dropped off dramatically.
So Merrick hired a woman for $250 to sit in the second row and, at an
agreed-upon moment, jump up onstage and physically attack actor Kenneth Haig,
playing Porter, ostensibly because the character was cheating on his wife.
Merrick had hoped, the newspapers reported the
incident, assuming it was real and spontaneous. According to
it extended the life of the play in
by seven months.
Dave Chappelle found it was hard to respond to a heckler one night. It was
difficult to spot the person, no doubt because Chapelle was performing not in a
comedy club but New York’s Madison Square Garden.
So, rather than trying to respond to someone he could not see, Chappelle
asked for help from his many fans.
He told those around the heckler to punch him in the kidneys.
fervor to get tickets to My Fair Lady at the Drury Lane was at its
height, the house manager one night noticed a lady with an open seat next to
her. He asked if it belonged to her.
She sadly admitted, “My husband was coming but he was killed in a car
The manager expressed his sympathy and asked why she had not invited a
family member or friend to join her at the very popular musical.
The woman insisted she couldn’t. “You see, they’re all at the funeral.”